By Martin Petty, Maya Gebeily and Charlotte Bruneau
AL RAYYAN, Qatar (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Iran’s national soccer team sang on Friday during the national anthem at their second World Cup match against Wales, after refraining from doing so in their opening match earlier this week in obvious support for the protesters at home.
Loud boos from Iranian fans were heard as the anthem played, with the team singing softly before going on to win 2-0, prompting euphoric celebrations outside the stadium where government supporters tried to drown out the chants of the opponents after the game.
Before the match, several fans said that security had prevented them or friends from carrying symbols of support for the protesters in the stadium. One said he was arrested. Another said security forces made him remove a T-shirt that read “Women, Life, Freedom” – a slogan of the protests.
In the stadium, a woman held aloft a football shirt with “Mahsa Amini – 22” printed on the back and blood-red tears painted under her eyes – to commemorate the woman whose death in police custody sparked the biggest protests from two months ago.
Iranian authorities responded with deadly force to quell protests calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic, one of the boldest challenges to Iran’s clerical rulers since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
After the match, cheering Iranians danced and cheered as they walked off the ground.
Some wore T-shirts commemorating Amini, who was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict dress codes, or held banners declaring “Women, Life, Freedom”.
Fans waving the official Iranian flag tried to drown them out with their own chants.
One of them stood in front of a group of women with WOMEN LIFE FREEDOM on their shirts and started singing over them. He wore a T-shirt printed with a photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian general who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020.
The win sets up a decider game against the United States on Tuesday.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, part of a hardline establishment that has condemned the protests as riots fomented by Iran’s enemies, praised the team for “bringing the sweetness of victory to the people of our country”.
Unlike on Monday, when Iranian state television cut off the broadcast while the anthem was playing, Iranian state media reported that the players had chanted on Friday and showed footage of pro-government fans in the stadium.
State TV showed people celebrating on the streets of different cities across Iran.
Ahead of the World Cup, protesters had taken heart at apparent shows of support from a number of Iranian national teams who refrained from singing the national anthem.
Before Monday’s opening match against England, the players had been solemn and silent as the anthem was played.
Iranian fans were in high spirits as the match approached, with cheers around the stadium as their players emerged from the tunnel for the warm-up, letting out a roar as striker Sardar Azmoun was announced, who spoke in support of the protest movement in the titular formation.
Team Melli, as the football club is known, has traditionally been a huge source of national pride in Iran, but they found themselves embroiled in politics in the run-up to the World Cup, with anticipation as to whether to use the football highlight as a platform to get behind the protesters.
‘THE BEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE’
Before the game, a man wearing a shirt that read “Women, Life, Freedom” was escorted into the stadium by security officers, a RockedBuzz via Reuters witness said.
RockedBuzz via Reuters could not immediately confirm why the man was accompanied by three blue-clad security officers.
A spokesman for the supreme organizing committee directed RockedBuzz via Reuters to FIFA’s and Qatar’s list of prohibited items, but did not say which prohibited item he was carrying.
The rules prohibit items with “political, offensive or discriminatory messages”.
The stadium media liaison for world governing body FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while the stadium’s media manager was unaware of the incidents but reportedly responded later.
Payam Saljoughian, 36, a US-based lawyer, said security forces forced him and his father to remove their ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ T-shirts, but his two brothers and mother were not told to take off theirs. “It was the best moment of my life, despite everything,” he told RockedBuzz via Reuters.
Iranian-American fan Shayan Khosravani, 30, told RockedBuzz via Reuters he was stopped by stadium security 10 minutes before kick-off.
He said he was arrested after being told to put away the pro-protest materials, which he did. But he was wearing a “Free Iran” T-shirt.
(Additional Reporting by Dubai Editors; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra, Gareth Jones, William Maclean)
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